This is not actually going to be a post about the G+ nym wars. Rather, it’s about something curious that I discovered while thinking about them.
I would like G+ to support persistent pseudonyms, so G+ users could say “+ESR” and have it point to my G+ profile. But here’s what’s interesting; I don’t actually want that capability because I want people to address me as “ESR” rather than my real name. I will cheerfully answer to either.
The reason I want a persistent alias as +ESR is more subtle. I want other people to be able to convey information about how they want to engage me by which label they choose. One might think of this as “aspect naming”, and it’s a slightly different phenomenon from pseudonymy or nicknaming, in a way I will explore in this essay.
I didn’t actually choose to be known as “ESR”. I do habitually use “esr” as a login name, but “ESR” is different; I got tagged that way by other people because hackers have a tradition of triletterizing people they consider tribal elders or chieftains. The best known other example is of course RMS = Richard M. Stallman, and I’m pretty sure I got triletterized on that model.
For completeness, I’ll note this is one of two conventions we use for marking tribal elders; the other is reference by plain first name, e.g. Linus = Linus Torvalds, Ken = Ken Thompson, Guido = Guido van Rossum. A sociolinguist might have an interesting time figuring out what the implicit rules are, and why some people who indisputably are tribal elders never get shortnamed.
Anyway, I accepted being use-named ESR after 1997 because I understood what it meant. Use of that handle was functional for the people who tagged me with it; it was and is part of a sort of social identity game in which, by addressing me that way, they perform a subtle affirmation of their own status as hackers and define the kind of interaction they are having with me.
I have friends who address me in different contexts as “Eric” or “ESR”, and it is quite predictable which context will elicit which behavior. A personal friend might write in a post visible to me “I was talking with ESR last week…” but would almost certainly say “Hey Eric, want some of this pizza?” in direct address. If I heard “Hey, ESR, want some of this pizza?” it would be from a random hacker who doesn’t know me very well and thus prefers to address me by tribal title of respect rather than personal name.
Conversely, I don’t expect (say) Tim O’Reilly to address or refer to me as ESR. He’s a friend and ally of the hacker culture (we’ve seldom had a better one!) but he doesn’t live inside it day-to-day and doesn’t use its forms of respect. He makes a particularly interesting contrasting case exactly because he’s so close to us.
So, where I’m going with this…it actually matters not to me in any status sense whether people address me by “ESR” or my personal name on G+ (or elsewhere). What does matter to me is that people have the option to do either, so they can use the option expressively and as a way of telling me (and themselves!) what social game we are in.
This isn’t exactly nicknaming in the normal sense, because nicknames usually convey informality rather than being loaded as signifiers of respect. Nor is it the kind of pseudonym that effectively takes over as the person’s working name, as for (say) “skud” = Kirrily Roberts. It’s more like the old-fashioned idea of a nom de guerre, except that there’s no element of concealment.
I’m calling this “aspect naming” by analogy to aspect programming. I’d like G+ to support it.
I also invite commenters to develop, if they can, a more complete theory of aspect naming among hackers. Why isn’t Larry Wall just “Larry”? He’s certainly prominent enough. Is there a discoverable rule explaining why Linus Torvalds is “Linus”, rather than “LBT”? I have some guesses, and I’m curious to see what others will come up with without hearing those.